The national homeowner vacancy rate reached 2.8 percent in the first quarter — the highest level on record, the U.S. Census Bureau reported today, while the home-ownership rate dipped slightly to 68.4 percent.

The homeowner vacancy rate, a gauge of the number of unoccupied units for sale vs. the total homeowner inventory, was 2.1 percent in first-quarter 2006 and has risen for seven consecutive quarters. A high vacancy rate can indicate an oversupply of housing units while a low vacancy rate can indicate a shortage in supply of housing units.

This rate was about 4 percent in principal cities, 2.9 percent inside metropolitan statistical areas, 2.4 percent in the suburbs and 2.2 percent outside of metropolitan areas in the first quarter. That compares to a rate of 2.5 percent in principal cities, 2 percent inside metropolitan areas, 1.8 percent in suburbs and 2.2 percent outside of metropolitan statistical areas in first-quarter 2006.

Regionally, the homeowner vacancy rate rose from 2.3 percent in first-quarter 2006 to 3.2 percent in first-quarter 2007 in the South, from 2.4 percent to 2.9 percent in the Midwest, from 1.7 percent to 2.6 percent in the West, and from 1.5 percent to 1.9 percent in the Northeast.

Meanwhile, the home-ownership rate hit a high of 69.2 percent in second-quarter and fourth-quarter 2004, and the first-quarter 2007 rate was roughly level with the 68.5 percent rate in first-quarter 2006 while falling from 68.9 percent in fourth-quarter 2006.

When seasonally adjusted, the home-ownership rate was 68.6 percent in the first quarter, compared with 68.7 percent in first-quarter 2006 and 68.7 percent in fourth-quarter 2006.

Regionally, the home-ownership rate was 72.2 percent in the Midwest, 70.6 percent in the South, 64.8 percent in the Northeast and 63.6 percent in the West in the first quarter. That compares to a year-earlier rate of 72.5 percent in the Midwest, 70.4 percent in the South, 64.7 percent in the Northeast and 64.4 percent in the West.

The rate was 80.9 percent for those ages 65 and up, 80.4 percent for those 55-64, 75.8 percent among those 45-54, 68.3 percent for those 35-44, and 41.7 percent for those under 35 in the first quarter. That compares to a rate of 80.3 percent for those 65 and up, 81.2 percent for those 55-64, 75.8 percent for those 45-54, 68.9 percent for those 35-44, and 42.3 percent for those under 35.

The home-ownership rate was 75.3 percent among non-Hispanic whites in the first quarter compared with 75.5 percent in first-quarter 2006, and rose to 50.1 percent among Hispanics of any race compared with 49.4 percent in first-quarter 2006, rose to 48 percent among blacks compared with 47.3 percent in first-quarter 2006, and dropped to 58.6 percent among all other races compared with 59.6 percent in first-quarter 2006.

The home-ownership rate for households with family incomes greater than or equal to the median family income was 83.3 percent in the first quarter compared with 83.7 percent in first-quarter 2006, and the rate for those with family incomes less than the median family income fell to 52.1 percent compared with 52.4 percent in first-quarter 2006.

The rental vacancy rate was 10.1 percent in the first quarter, up from 9.5 percent in first-quarter 2007. This rate has risen for four consecutive quarters. Regionally, the rental vacancy rate jumped from 10.9 percent in first-quarter 2006 to 13.1 percent in first-quarter 2007 in the South while dropping in all other regions: from 12.6 percent to 12.1 percent in the Midwest; from 7.3 percent to 7.1 percent in the Northeast; and from 6.7 percent to 6.5 percent in the West.

The total housing inventory was estimated at 127.27 million units in first-quarter 2007, up from 125.37 million in first-quarter 2006. And estimated 75.01 million units were owner-occupied in the first quarter and 34.7 million were renter-occupied, compared with 74.88 million owner-occupied and 34.41 million renter-occupied in first-quarter 2006.

Of the 17.6 million vacant housing units, 13.4 million were for year-round use and 4.2 million were seasonal, according to the report. About 4 million of the year-round vacant units were for rent, 2.2 million were for sale only, and 7.3 million units were vacant for other reasons, the Census Bureau reported.

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